This High School Dropout Is Lighting up NYC's Dark Fiber

Pilot brings high speed internet to other small businesses.

|
Oct 13 2017, 2:00pm

Image: Courtesy Pilot 

Just below Pilot's trendy new office space in SoHo thrums one of New York City's densest thoroughfares of fiber optic cable. This is no accident, Joe Fasone—the ISP startup's 23-year-old founder—deliberately wanted to be as close to the backbone of the internet as possible.

"We've gone through absurd lengths to build our network properly," Fasone told me in an interview at his office.

Pilot offers high speed internet to other startup businesses in four cities around the east coast. It's a fairly straightforward concept, but the way Fasone and his team has approached building the business is more unusual.

They've been using advanced networking technology that can split a single fiber optic cable into 80 different channels, each offering speeds up to 40gbps. And since many cities, including Pilot's homebase in New York, are veined with miles of unused "dark" fiber optic cable, all this startup has to do is lease (or buy) that cable, and switch it on.

Pilot uses technology called TWDM-PON, which stands for "time and wavelength division multiplexed passive optical network." Sound complex? It is. TWDM-PON is at the forefront of network technology.

The PON part of the technology has been in use for awhile now by many network providers. It essentially allows the signal from a fiber-optic cable to be split and service multiple different customers at once. But it's the TWDM acronym that's cutting edge, according to Daniel Kilper, a photonics research professor at the University of Arizona. TWDM uses a crystal to refract the signal into multiple wavelengths before it is sent down the fiber, up to 80 different channels on one fiber alone, which can then be split using PON on the other end.

"In the past, people used to take a fiber and just send one signal down it," Kilper said. "Even in a PON network it's just one or two signals going down the same fiber. With TWDM you can do 80. You can much more efficiently use that fiber."

Kilper said this kind of hardware has started to become more affordable, but that it's still not widely used. Combined with New York's web of unused fiber, it made Pilot's business a plausible—and profitable—idea.

Pilot, which was founded in 2014, has raised a total of $32.3 million in investments funds, according to the New York Times, and expanded to four cities. It was a natural progression for Fasone who, at age 16, stopped going to high school during his senior year in order to work full-time as the director of IT for WeWork—the coworking and incubator share space startup. That experience connected him with many young startup CEOs eager to move into bigger, trendier spaces but lost as to how to get hooked up to affordable, ultra-fast, reliable internet. After numerous CEOs called him asking for help, Fasone realized there was something missing from the market.

"We were able to prove there's a lot of fiber out there, and that we can structure long term secure deals with a lot of people to lease or acquire their fiber capacity," Fasone said. "I just kind of saw an opportunity."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Pilot is operating in seven cities. It is operating in four cities currently.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .